PRINT December 1988


THERE'S GOOD REASON TO be wary these days when the signs of another specialization start emerging—when one small point is established at the sacrifice of the wide horizon. Contemporary society has become remarkably undisciplined in the ways that it spontaneously endorses new disciplines in almost unimaginable areas of expertise. Those involved in the art world are well accustomed to the coalescences and lightninglike dissipations of style, but a new speciality is not a common notion. In the past 25 years, traditional distinctions between sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, and installation—as well as the idea of art and architecture as independent, exclusive phenomena—have eroded, causing fused and hybrid forms and unusual intersections. And conceptual catholicity, openness, and negotiable categorization have provided the groundwork for the galvanization of a new art: the now very active and hierarchically complex world of public art. Within this arena, there are many players and many productions, some enlightened ideas and little criticism.

Public art—as it is normally understood and encountered today—is a nascent, and perhaps naive, idea. It bears so little resemblance to earlier manifestations—especially the most immediate precedent of civic, elegiac art of the 19th and early 20th centuries—that the idea of a historical progression of uninterrupted continuity seems spurious; there are few instructive models. And so, though public art in the late 20th century has emerged as a full-blown discipline, it is a field without clear definitions, without a constructive theory, and without coherent objectives. When the intentions have been apparent they are usually so modest (amenity) or so obvious (embellishment or camouflage) that they seem to have little to do with art at all. In short, the making of public art has become a profession, whose practitioners are in the business of beautifying, or enlivening, or entertaining the citizens of, modern American and European cities. In effect, public art’s mission has been reduced to making people feel good—about themselves and where they live. This may be an acceptable, and it certainly is an agreeable, intention, but it is a profoundly unambitious and often reactionary one. And even these small goals are infrequently satisfied; public art doesn’t generally please or placate, or provide any insistent stimulation. Instead, public art today, for the most part, occupies. And just at the moment when so much apparatus has been assembled and oiled that might aid in the development of a rigorous critical foundation for public art, there is a growing feeling of—well, why bother? Indeed, an enterprise that emerged with such idealism now feels like a lost opportunity.

Yet many artists, art administrators, and bureaucrats worked hard to promote the current proliferation and professionalization of public art, and did so with the noblest of intentions. Some reflection on the past indicates that those involved had good reason to lobby for “official” policy and protections. For art that appears beyond the configurations and machinations of the gallery and museum encounters different forces and greater risks, and thus should be provided, they believed, with some fundamental assurances and safeguards—for the sake of the artist, as well as the community. And given the very real need for relief from, or challenge to, the loud monotony of the urban landscape, state and federal guidelines for “percent for art” programs were initiated; standards and criteria for selection and review drafted; and bureaucratic procedures codified. But this clarification of operations has ultimately led to a “minimum basic standard” mentality. Not unlike American housing reform in the late 19th century—which was not based on constructive legislation for a sound life, but on the absolute lowest standards of acceptability—the public art “machine” now often encourages mediocrity. To weave one’s way through its labyrinthine network of proposal submissions to appropriate agencies, filings and refilings of budget estimates, presentations to juries, and negotiations with government or corporate sponsors, requires a variety of skills that are frequently antithetical to the production of a potent work of art. If the “machine” itself can be put to use as a conduit, rather than as a molder of the art that emerges, then there is still the potential for transforming methodology and materials into positive energy. But more often the result of this process has been what Gordon Matta-Clark, James Wines, and others have referred to as “the turd in the plaza.”

Public art operates on a practical as well as a philosophical level, but the contemporary preoccupation has been with the pragmatic. Thus we can find abundant information on the strategies that initiate public art, but we can search far and wide for any compellingly articulated theory of public art. Can provocative art endure the democratic composition of the selection panel and process? Are art and ecumenicism in opposition? Can public art illuminate cultural ideas that other forms frequently cannot? What is it that public art can uniquely do? These are the kinds of questions, I would argue, that must be more vigorously explored. And I would further propose that this discourse will serve to overturn some knee-jerk assumptions about the very nature of the hybrid beast we call public art.

ONE BASIC ASSUMPTION THAT has underwritten many of the contemporary manifestations of public art is the notion that this art derives its “publicness” from where it is located. But is this really a valid conception? The idea of the public is a difficult, mutable, and perhaps somewhat atrophied one, but the fact remains that the public dimension is a psychological, rather than a physical or environmental, construct. The concept of public spirit is part of every individual’s psychic composition: it is that metaphysical site where personal needs and expression meet with collective aspirations and activity. The public is the sphere we share in common; wherever it occurs, it begins in the decidedly “somewhere” of individual consciousness and perception.

Therefore, the public is not only a spatial construct. And thus a truly public art will derive its “publicness” not from its location, but from the nature of its engagement with the congested, cacophonous intersections of personal interests, collective values, social issues, political events, and wider cultural patterns that mark out our civic life. Unfortunately, what we have traditionally seen is a facile definition that links those areas that cities (with private developers) designate as public spaces with the notion of public art. It is presumed that these sites, by virtue of their accessibility or prominence, are the ones where public art can and should appear. This is a questionable idea for many reasons—not the least of which is that public space, as it is emerging in our time, bears little kinship to the public space of the town square, plaza, or common in which the public art of the past traditionally found its home. Public space, as defined today, is, in fact, the socially acceptable euphemism used to describe the area that developers have “left over,” the only “negotiable” space after all of their available commercial and residential space has been rented or sold. The City of New York, for example, has granted many developers the right to upscale the height or bulk of their buildings, contingent upon their agreement to provide a little more “public space” at ground level. But what qualities and characteristics these spaces must offer have been inconsistently interpreted. Thus public space has served as a great new incentive—not to be “public,” however, but to satisfy far more profit-motivated market objectives. When public space and public art seem to appear spontaneously, it is usually because some savvy or enlightened developer has discovered that beauty can be profitable, and that offering something to the community (even if no one really understands the nature of the gift) can enhance the corporate image. In the same way that “good fences make good neighbors,” the clear delineation of a public space has been packaged as a neighborly gesture, with public art the fence that identifies boundaries.

But a public art that truly explores the rich symbiotic topography of civic, social, and cultural forces can take place anywhere—and for any length of time. It would not have to conform to such formal parameters, for it would not find its meaning through its situation in a forum, but would create the forum for the poignant and potent dialogue between public ideals and private impulses, between obligation and desire, between being of a community and solitude. Wherever we might find that art, we would be inspired to extend its discourse into the variety of public and private domains we enter. Those two domains are different, of course, but they are interdependent. To define the public as merely that which exists outside the private is to deny the essential and complex relationship between the two.

A major exhibition in lower Manhattan this fall has helped to emblematize these and other disquieting questions about the relationship between so-called public space and public art. In and around a major and unfinished portion of ground-level space in the World Financial Center of the newly emerging Battery Park City complex, the real estate development firm of Olympia & York provided a space for invited artists and architects to install temporary, site-specific works. The Olympia & York assembly of art, entitled “The New Urban Landscape,” was an extravaganza—in the best and worst senses of that word. This rich variety of projects announced loudly and emphatically that here lies another public space. And so here, once again, art was defined as public because of its location. Yet there was a particularly shrewd inversion at work. By dangling the bait of abundant and chewy art by some of the “hottest” accomplished and emerging artists from around the world, Olympia & York succeeded in appropriating the notion of public art to entice the public to a new site—that didn’t, by any other definition, look or feel very public. And the lure for this consecration was both savory and spicey. The organizers and artists had the courage, and the developer the good sense (and beneficence), to endorse some politically loaded, controversial, and critical work in a corporate-sponsored setting. And yet “The New Urban Landscape” sends out troubling—and by now familiar—messages about public art’s application. For “The New Urban Landscape” was a fin-de-siècle enterprise—in some ways, the coda for fifteen years of fervor. And when it all ended, art had served as just one more ingredient in an elaborate coronation that attempted to transform nothing more than a low-ceilinged hallway into a dynamic public space, and a private developer into a public patron.

The involvement of corporations in the sponsorship and support of art is not a new thing. After many years of stimulating the production of private art, it seems quite natural that corporations would eventually find their way to public art, which can now not only boost a corporation’s reputation as intelligent and concerned, but can also serve as the vehicle to demonstrate community spirit, a belief in the idea of place in an age of placeless architecture. With this project there was a generous and open sponsor, some very good art, and thoughtful, insightful organizers. So what is the problem? What is it that disturbs?

In fact, some of the answers to these questions will be found in other questions: those that address the implications of the temporary in public art. For in the bureaucratization of public art, there has been a tremendous emphasis on the installation of permanent projects. (Organizations such as the Public Art Fund Inc. and Creative Time, Inc.—dedicated to sponsoring short-lived exhibitions and installations in sites throughout New York—are two of the exceptions.) When evaluating proposals for art that will be commissioned to last “forever,” it is not shocking that selection panels have often clammed up and chosen the safe, well-traveled path of caution. When faced with the expanses of eternity, it is not surprising that many artists themselves have tended to propose those cautious, evenhanded solutions. Therefore, the temporary is important because it represents a provocative opportunity to be maverick, or to be focused, or to be urgent about immediate issues in ways that can endure and resonate. But I would argue that the power of the temporary asserts itself productively and genuinely in situations where the pressure of the moment is implicit in the work. Seen in these terms, the temporary is not about an absence of longterm exhibition commitment on the part of any particular sponsor, but about a pledge of a different kind, with more compressed intensity, on the part of the artist.

The nucleated setting and agenda of Olympia & York’s endeavor raises serious concerns about the potential for co-opting and institutionalizing even this radical fringe of public art. For what will be the lasting impact of this great event of Olympia & York’s? In what significant ways has this exhibition marked this site, or furthered the idea of art as a critical public catalyst, once the gypsy encampment has packed up and moved on? In fact, wasn’t this project just another schedule-driven exhibition that had little to do with the present or future of the public life at this site? If a succession of temporary exhibitions might, in fact, animate this public space (something the developers apparently desire) and begin to generate some meaningful dialogue (something the rest of us might like) about space, art, and contemporary urban life, such a possibility is entirely contingent upon some long-range vision as opposed to a shrewd public relations strategy, however magnificently or munificently that strategy is enacted. By “dressing up” (or disingenuously “dressing down”) what would be considered even a poorly designed indoor sculpture garden in the garb and lingo of social conscience and inquiry (“The public spaces of The World Financial Center are an ideal context for public art,” a four-color brochure tells us. “The works in this exhibition make unusual demands on the viewer,” etc.), Olympia & York have, as much as anything, demonstrated to us just how subject to manipulation the concept of public art has become.

PERHAPS ANOTHER ONE OF the great problems of public art today stems from its fundamentally ecumenical intentions. Artists striving to meet the needs of their public audience have too easily subscribed to the notion that these needs can best be met through an art of the widest possible relevance. The ideas of ecumenicism and relevance are not onerous, but they can have—and in the case of public art, often do have—insidious and oppressive dimensions. For broad-based appeal and the search for a universal common denominator are not a priori esthetic concepts, but a posteriori results. Reverse that order, and the art’s in trouble, for art is an investigation, not an application. So it’s disturbing when it looks as if artists are campaigning for public office—going for the majority consensus at all costs.

Not surprisingly, this goal of unanimity has also led to the establishment of what is considered a more democratic composition of public-art selection committees. There has been a generous and well-intentioned effort to include on these committees not only panelists with backgrounds in the arts, but also representatives from the local community in which the public installation will be situated. Yet if followed to its logical conclusion, the concept of “public” that this phenomenon implies reveals itself to be quite ludicrous. For public space is either communal—a part of the collective citizenry—or it is not. Somewhere along the line, our democratic process has presumed that the sentiments of one particular community, simply because of its members’ propinquity to the prospective installation, should be granted greater significance. What this suggests is that we have arrived at some reliable formula for articulating the precise radius that distinguishes that community’s interests from the larger field of public life. Thus the ideas of the local community and of the general public are put into an adversarial relationship, implying a fundamental conflict between those inside a particular neighborhood, area, city, etc., and those outside. This peculiar endorsement of community opinion, sometimes at the expense of larger public concerns, subtly yet effectively affirms a notion of what I would call “psychological ownership,” at the same time that it refuses to ground that notion in any terms other than geographic. Thus, because I live, work, or relax near a certain site, I believe that, in a sense, I “have” that site, and am empowered to exert control, regulation, or power over those who are the “have-nots.” We have seen the ramifications of this kind of thinking in a variety of controversies. For example, which is the community that should have the most say in “approving” the design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.? Veterans? The family members of men killed or missing in action? The group of office workers and government bureaucrats who work nearby? The public at large, who might feel a sense of possession of this tragic, poignant space? And which is the community to be consulted when installations are contemplated for City Hall Park in Manhattan? The government employees who work in City Hall and cross the park each day? Or New York City voters for whose civic authority and commitment the site speaks? Or the many homeless who spend their days and their nights in the park? And to which group should the artist throw his or her appeal?

Rather than digging in our heels to examine and analyze the implications of these questions, too many public-art sponsors and makers seem to be trying to sidestep them with a “minimum-risk” art; that is, an art that can be slipped quietly into space and somehow manage to engage everyone but seriously offend or disturb no one. But isn’t it ironic that an enterprise aimed, even at the least, at enlivening public life is now running on gears designed to evade controversy? And that so many involved in public art express such dismay—even hurt—if and when controversy occurs? Curiously, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, 1981, in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza remains one of the great moments in contemporary public art, not despite but because of the conflict its installment generated. Is it offensive? Does it obstruct? Is it public if it does not please? Should the artist’s personal vision of site-specificity be permitted to override the desires of the local (specifically professional) community most frequently exposed to the work? In fact, Serra’s work achieved its most profound public resonance and significance precisely at the moment when its future seemed most threatened. And that inflexible, somewhat dogmatic object in a deplorable architectural context has been enriched by the color and texture of public debate that continues to surround it. Tilted Arc is an important symbol for public art because of the questions it has stimulated—and not because it should not be where it is.

Unfortunately, the avoidance of such controversy has generated an attitude about public art that constrains and segregates thinking. In the 1970s, when troubled cities felt a great vulnerability to the aggressive, often destructive gestures of disenfranchised citizens, the idea of “defensible space” became an important concept. It was Oscar Newman who first proposed that public space could and should be designed in a way that protected it from the onslaughts of graffitists, vandals, and other assaulters.1 We can see the influence of this proposition in the clunky, immovable concrete benches and barriers in our parks and city streets; the barbed grillwork appearing on ground-level heating ducts to stave off loiterers and the homeless seeking warmth. But we can also see the flip side of this proposition at work in the public-art mentality taking hold today. Public art may not be required to be physically “defensible” but it is, more and more, expected to be defendable. So every possible—and ludicrous—objection is raised at the early stages of the artist selection and proposal process, to anticipate and fend off any possible community disfavor. With programs dependent on such tightly woven sieves, it’s not surprising that plenty of hefty, powerful projects don’t make their way through. And it’s not surprising that, over the years, the artists who might propose such projects have turned their energies elsewhere, while the studios of the artists who have learned the appropriate formula have become minifactories for the churning out of elegant maquettes for current and future projects.

It is important to consider that the most public and civic space of many early American cities was the common. The common represented the site, the concept, and the enactment of democratic process. This public area, used for everything from the grazing of livestock to the drilling of militia, was the forum where information was shared and public debate occurred: a charged, dynamic coalescence. The common was not a place of absolute conformity, predictability, or acquiescence, but of spirited disagreement, of conflict, of only modest compromises—and of controversy. It was the place where the ongoing dialogue between desire and civility was constantly reenacted, rather than restrained or censored. If it’s true that the actual space of the common does not exist as it did two hundred years ago, the idea is still vital. Its problematic shadow image, the idea of an enormous, happy cultural melting pot, was challenged and generally dismissed twenty-five years ago—except by a lot of people involved with public art. So if there is a tragedy here, it is that public art is in the unique position to reconstitute the idea of the common, and yet, by misconstruing the concept—by too often rewarding the timid, the proven, the assuaging—the public art machine has consistently sabotaged its own potential to do so.

STILL, IT SEEMS, WE'RE returned to the question of where that “common” might be today, or at least where—or how—we might look for the public art to create it. And though I’ve painted a bleak picture of the contemporary scene, it is not a hopeless one. In fact, if we take that step beyond conceiving of the new urban landscape as a geographic grid of buildings, spaces, and art, to view it instead as an ever-mutating organism sustained by multiple, interrelated vortices and networks and the private trajectories that complicate them, then the horizon line of public art expands to include the “invisible” operations of huge systems and the intimate stories of individual lives. Certainly the artists who choose to work with these polarities where the edges of the public are invented and realized are not the only ones whose projects provide significant stimulation. But their work, by pressing against calcified notions of public art, suggests some fresh visions of the common.

For example, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ work with the Department of Sanitation of the City of New York engages city residents in one of the most crucial, life-sustaining but maligned operations of urban life—garbage collection. Her most recent project, Flow City (scheduled for completion in 1990), will bring people into a cavernous marine transfer facility at 59th Street and the Hudson River for what is, in effect, a multimedia performance of trucks dumping their loads of household and commercial waste into barges destined for landfills. Ukeles’ work proposes that the public in public art is defined by subject rather than object.

At the other end of the spectrum, some of the most fruitful investigations of public life and art are occurring in the most private, sequestered site of all—the home. For just as the public space has become diminished as a civic site, the home has become, in many senses, a more public, open forum. The public world comes into each home as it never has before, through television, radio, and personal computer. So that the rituals that were once shared conspicuously in a group are now still shared—but in isolation. An example of this ambiguous condition is the annual celebration of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Which is the more public event—the throng of people gathering at 42nd Street to watch a lighted apple drop, or the millions of people at home, each watching this congregation on TV? In other words, more and more, the home has become the site for the complex play of social meanings. For this reason, it is a fruitful domain for dialogue about the public/private dialectic. Following in the footsteps of Gent’s Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst’s 1986 exhibition “Chambres d’amis,” the Santa Barbara (California) Contemporary Arts Forum organized their 1988 “Home Show,” with ten California residents welcoming ten artists into their homes to explore the region of interiority—as it relates to the external, public world.

For this project, the collaborative team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, with a work entitled Picture out of Doors, methodically removed all the doors in Pat and David Farmer’s home, including doors from closets, cupboards, and cabinets, even from bedrooms and bathrooms. The tangible evidence of sanctioned voyeurism was stacked in the living room. In a sense, the team’s project publicized intimacy by denying privacy. In many ways, the Santa Barbara installation was a tame project for Ericson and Ziegler. For the past ten years they have conducted their own investigations of the private/public dialectic, with much of their work occurring on their own instigation, that is, without the benefit or legitimacy of an arts organization. They have placed advertisements in local newspapers seeking homeowners willing to collaborate on projects. In one project in Hawley, Pennsylvania, for example, called Half Slave, Half Free, 1987, the team asked a homeowner to continue to cut only half of his lawn and leave the other portion unmaintained. Half Slave, Half Free suggests an expanded and provocative definition of public art, one that has sustained a commitment to independent “guerrilla” activity as an alternative to institutionalized commissioning, and that appeals to and enlists the support of the single vote (the homeowner/collaborator) as opposed to the majority rule in order to explore the half-slave, half-free relationship of personal to public, and vice versa.

Individual vision and independent thinking are possible in the realm of public art; what we’ve come to expect—or accept with a sigh—is not all we need expect. Two years ago, architects Donna Robertson and Robert McAnulty proposed a design of an apartment for an exhibition called “Room in the City.” The proposal was spare yet complex. Within the space of a small Manhattan apartment, a procession of five video monitors, hooked up to a satellite communications disk placed outside the window, showed random images of the city, creating an ethereal glow of violated or collaged information. On the other side of a diagonal wall that slashed through the space, a single monitor, unattached to the communications dish and the surrounding city, sat at the foot of the bed. In the traditional site of domesticity and intimacy, this project stands as a metaphor for our new urban landscape; that site where private and public, the intimate and the shared, are fragmented and reconceptualized, where culture both originates and ends, and where the public is permitted to assert itself as an idea of ever-shifting focus and fruitful frustration.

Patricia C. Phillips writes regularly for Artforum.



1. See Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1972.